On October 5th I had the unique opportunity to witness a historical milestone in Iranian American Jewish life during an event at UCLA for the launching of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Israel Studies Center. The Iranian Jewish couple who emigrated to the U.S. from Iran after that country’s 1979 revolution are one of only dozen folks in L.A.’s community that truly make me proud to be an Iranian Jew because of their unceasing support of all causes related to Israel. Even though they have achieved tremendous success in business, they have never forgotten that Israel was their spiritual homeland and their true Jewish safe haven. The couple has not only been generous financially with charitable causes relating to Israel and Jewish life, but they promoted a tremendous amount of time and effort into these endeavors. What is truly remarkable and special for many of L.A.’s Iranian Jews is the fact that an Israel Studies Center was established at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, are members of their community— who just 30 years ago were immigrants who had left their lives and fortunes behind in Iran!
UCLA has now officially named the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies in honor of the couple. The Y & S Nazarian Family Foundation has made donations totaling $5 million to the university, which helped establish the Israel Studies Program in 2005 and created an endowment for the center. Formerly the Israel Studies Program, the center is the first full-fledged center of its kind on the West Coast and one of three such centers that are named and endowed in the nation. It offers courses on such varied topics as Israeli politics, law, economics, film, theater, environmental policy and the early history of Zionism. The center also presents speakers and organizes conferences that highlight Israel’s history, cultural diversity, and economic and technological achievements.
“This will be a very special center because we will be able to do serious academic work, research and public education when it comes to Israel,” said Arieh Saposnik, the center’s incoming director, who holds UCLA’s Gilbert Chair in Israel Studies. “This center will be important because we get typically get a one dimensional view of Israel in academia and the news, but this center will show the complexity of Israel which is not always known to the larger public with all of it’s challenges”.
During is brief speech Younes Nazarian express pride in Israel that he said offered “a sense of belonging” to him, where he no longer experienced the prejudice he faced in Iran as a Jew. He also said he and his wife were proud of their daughter, Sharon Baradaran, who chairs the center’s Advisory Board. “This center was brought about by our daughter, Sharon and her personal investment in this center which means a lot to us,” said Nazarian. “It fits well with the mission of our foundation which is education. Even though I don’t have a high education myself, I believe in the importance of supporting higher education”.
Nazarian family members also serve on numerous boards, including the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Pacific Council on International Policy, the University of Haifa, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation and the RAND Corp. The Nazarian family members were also among the original founders of the “Magbit Foundation”, a non-profit based in Beverly Hills and started by affluent Iranian American Jews less than 20 years ago that provides interest-free loans to under-privileged but academically promising college students in Israel.
On an interesting side note, Younes and Soraya Nazarian are also the parents to the prominent Los Angeles Iranian Jewish hotelier and night club owner, Sam Nazarian. They also the parents of Shula Nazarian, who earlier this year curated a remarkable exhibition of contemporary art work from Iranian American Jewish artists at USC’s Hillel. The art work of Mrs. Soraya Nazarian was featured in her daughter’s exhibition and in recent years she has also gifted many of her sculptures to Israeli universities, including the University of Haifa.